How Fast Can You Run is an insightful, gripping, and compassionate account of the second Sudanese Civil War and refugee life in America. Michael Majok Kuch’s observations, as the author has written them, about what happens to him over the course of his young life are heartbreaking and hopeful in equal measure. Refugees are individuals. They are not the faceless, nameless millions we in the West encounter only on the evening news. How Fast Can You Run is an important reminder of this.
Michael lives in a small village in southern Sudan when the second Sudanese Civil War breaks out in the mid 1980s. On the night his home is attacked, he’s separated from his mother and escapes into the bush. From there begins a harrowing journey that will take him across entire countries and through the horrors of armed conflict. He has become what is known in the West as a Lost Boy. He, and thousands like him, marched through the wilderness under threat of violence from soldiers, wild animals, and other tribes. The boys walked for weeks and months and, in some cases, years.
Michael’s story is a true one, novelized by author and poet Harriet Levin Millan. The first night away from his village, Michael hides in a tree. The next day he’s discovered by a young boy named Akol. Where did Akol come from? Why does he want Michael to follow him? Michael is only five and doesn’t doesn’t waste time asking himself these questions, and neither does Millan speculate. Like a poet does with a line, Millan allows the language she uses to tell the story in place of exposition. “Maybe Akol was telling the truth. Maybe they were hills. [Michael] imagined reaching them and running up their green sides, standing at the very top and looking down through the haze to the valley below, there he’d find his family—his mother, his father, his brothers, his uncles, his grandmother—waving up at him. Akol gave him that hope.”
The first half of the book is dedicated to Michael’s journey through Sudan, and then in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, where he lived for ten years. The second half follows Michael’s experiences adapting to life in America. Throughout it all, the singular driving force of Michael’s life is to be reunited with his mother. “And he also knew that staying alive had something to do with his search for his mother. He narrowed his eyes as if seeing her in the distance. Was it possible? Was she guiding him? He believed she was leading him to her, wherever she was at the moment, and each moment was filled with her.” It’s this hope that keeps him going, not the wish for a better life for himself or the desire for education or to fall asleep with a full stomach.
War and its effects are difficult to define or summarize. People who’ve been lucky enough to not experience war can certainly empathize with Michael’s story, though it’s impossible to truly understand the trauma of what happened to him. But we’ve all known emotional loss. We’ve all known fear and uncertainty. In this way we can relate to a boy searching for his mother.